First, a confession: I am the previous owner of several outdoor cats. I believed I was doing the right thing. My cats were neutered. They had food, shelter, and regular vet visits. They were free to climb trees and chase butterflies. I loved to watch them stalking in the garden like miniature tigers.
When the first one, black Grendel, came back from one of his nights on the town with one ear and half his face torn off, I rushed him to the vet, who managed to sew him back together. Soon after that, Grendel went away again and never came back.
The next one, an orange kitten named Gato, somehow broke his leg while playing in the garden. The vet put it in a cast. When the cast came off, Gato went exploring, and we never saw him again.
Mitsou was an exquisite chocolate-point Siamese. Her head and face were round, a throwback to the days before anorexic-looking, sunken-cheeked cats reminiscent of runway models became fashionable. In love with her looks, and tired of losing cats, I kept her indoors, where she ruled the household, especially the dogs, for seventeen years.
I adopted Pascal, a black and white kitten who had been abandoned by his mother, before his eyes opened. He had to be fed every two hours, so I put him in a cardboard box and took him to the office. After each feeding I would take him to the bathroom where I would enact a mother cat’s attentions by wiping his nether regions with a washcloth dipped in warm water.
As Pascal grew, and grew, so did his affection for me. I could not sit down without huge, rangy Pascal flinging himself on top of me, purring and kneading and drooling, eyes half-closed in bliss. If I had left the back door open, I doubt that he would have chosen to leave my side. But I didn’t. Pascal was an indoor cat.
But then we moved to a suburb of DC and I had a long commute, which meant that we had to install a dog door so the dog could let himself out to the fenced-in yard during the day, which also meant that Pascal became an indoor-outdoor cat.
He had a grand time, and became an expert hunter of moles, something that neither his mother nor I had ever taught him. His record was nine moles in a single evening, which he laid in a row next to my lawn chair while I sat watching the sunset.
But within six months he was dead–poisoned, we think, by licking antifreeze off somebody’s driveway.
You see where this is going?
While many an indoor cat lives as long as twenty years, the average lifespan of an outdoor cat is two to three years. Needless to say, my present top-predator-in-residence, Telemann, lives strictly indoors.
But Telemann’s safety is only half the reason why I keep him in the house. The other half is the welfare of the innocent chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches and woodpeckers who come to our feeders.
There is no doubt in my mind that, despite his exquisite diet of raw turkey, given five minutes in the yard sweet Telemann would turn into a bird-killing machine. According to the Bird Conservancy, in the U.S. cats kill approximately 2.4 BILLION birds a year. This makes cat predation the largest human-caused threat to birds (human-caused because we’re the ones who let the cats outside).
With a pane of glass between them, however, Telemann and my birds coexist peacefully. It didn’t take long for the birds to figure out that the kitten swatting at them just inches away from the feeder was prevented by some invisible magic from catching them.
For Telemann, the birds outside the window are just another joy in the joy-filled life that we strive to provide for him. When they are eating, he leaps from windowsill to windowsill to get the best view, looking fierce and waving his tail like a tiger on the hunt.
And then there are the squirrels, gray like him and almost his size, bold enough to “touch” noses through the glass. They are the big game, the zebras and wildebeest of Telemann’s savannas.
Is Telemann frustrated because he can’t crunch on the neck of a titmouse, or sever a squirrel’s spine? Probably. It is in Telemann’s nature to enjoy killing things, just as it is in mine to enjoy eating the flesh of lobsters boiled alive. But I don’t, and I survive the deprivation, and so does he. Telemann and I already have almost too much pleasure in our lives.
But the birds, those little harmless beautiful bits of Nature, are threatened everywhere by the loss of woods and fields and bugs and wildflowers. They suffer from sudden and bizarre weather events. And they are eaten by the small tigers that we love. They need all the help they can get.
So Telemann does his bit by staying inside, and I do mine every morning, when I clean his litter box.